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March 16th, 2013

Children that sit down with adults to eat their meals tend to develop healthier eating habits than those that do not, even if that only happens a couple of times a week, according to a recent south London study.

It was discovered that young children were more likely to eat their recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables if they sat down to eat with their parents or carers, even if that didn’t happen every day. The study included 2,400 primary school children across south London and involved keeping a food diary to see what a child would typically eat in a 24 hour period.

Their parents were also asked a number of questions such as how many nights a week the family typically sat at the table to eat, and whether or not they cut up fruit and vegetables for their child. Overall the results showed that children who always ate as a family were most likely to get their five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

Children who sometimes sat down as a family consumed an average of 4.6 portions a day, which nearly equates to the recommended amount. In comparison children that never ate as a family consumed on average just 3.3 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Cutting up fruit and vegetables for children generally increased their daily intake. These trends are thought to be due to the fact that children’s eating habits are learned from the adults that care for them.

Professor Janet Cade from the University of Leeds' School of Food Science and Nutrition suggests that "Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating children's own food habits and preferences. Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be more prominent in public health campaigns."

Other ways to help your child establish good eating habits include:

• Setting a daily routine for both main meals and healthy snacks and trying to stick to it, so that children generally eat at the same times each day.

• Giving children a wide variety of foods including different fruits and vegetables to get a variety of nutrients. If they don’t like something the first time don’t get cross but do serve it to them again another day.

• Get children involved in healthy cooking and preparing meals such as simple homemade pizzas with whole-wheat bases and vegetable toppings. Vegetables such as squashes can be fun for children to play with.

• Create a peaceful place to eat with no distractions such as the television or radio. Make sure everyone sits at the table during the meal rather than wandering about.

• Serve children small portions so it’s easier for them to ‘win’ by clearing their plate. Large portions can be overwhelming and if they are still hungry they can always have more.

• Stick to the rules, for example if you say your child needs to eat three more spoonfuls of soup if they want to read a particular book after dinner, you must stick to that and not give in after one.

• Praise children when they eat well and be specific about benefits. For example tell your son he’ll be able to run faster as he’s eating well, or tell your daughter eating well will help her to have beautiful shiny hair.

Children’s eating habits are established early in life, so by showing a good example, sitting down with them to eat, giving them a good variety of fruits and vegetables, and being consistent with your rules and routine, you can establish healthy eating habits that will promote good health into adulthood.

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